During his lifetime, Earl Townsend Jr. was known as the original television voice of the Indy 500, as well as an attorney and philanthropist. Now, in the years following his 2007 death, his collection of prehistoric stone Indian artifacts, which has been called “one of the finest in the United States” (Hubert C. Wachtel), is taking center stage.
Antique Helper Auctions will be disseminating the collection to the highest bidder in the coming months; the first offering, which includes birdstones, quartz bannerstones, axes, cones and slate, will be auctioned this week. Some items are expected to fetch $100,000 or more, but parties without such resources may still view the collection during a preview party Friday.
Native American artifact specialist Larry Swann, who is curating the auction for Antique Helper, spoke with us this week about Townsend, the world of artifact collecting and the nigh-orgasmic feeling of holding an intact quartz bannerstone.
NUVO: Are people still finding artifacts as valuable as those in Townsend's collection?
Swann: There are still great finds all the time, but when they came in here — in Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio — and started plowing up these great forests to plant corn, that stuff was just rolling out of the ground. Even if you weren't a collector — if you had a one-bottom plow, walking behind a horse — you'd have walked over spear points, axe heads; it would have been hard not to pick them up. Most farmers have a collection, whether they know it or not; they've got a cigar box somewhere with a bunch of blades in it. So the mass of stuff was collected, and then people like Townsend and these early doctors, lawyers, dentists and scientists had the means to go around and collect this stuff, especially during the Depression, when they would run ads and so forth. But stuff still comes up. A friend of mine found a nice birdstone last year ... in a plowed field I'd hunted a hundred times.
NUVO: How long was Townsend a collector?
Swann: He started in his twenties. His father was a collector and friend of Eli Lilly; Lilly, of course, was a huge collector. He started very early, and as a patron of the arts, he had that art eye. So he collected objects of art that are still under-appreciated as artforms. Tools are tools — arrowheads, knives, spears, axes — but when you get into things like birdstones and these elaborate bannerstones, they are still an under-appreciated artform. The first time I went to his home he had a Rembrandt hanging on the wall. He kept yelling at me, “Larry, I thought you wanted to see these rocks,” and I said, “I can't get past the Rembrandt, Earl!” … He absolutely had that artist's eye. And he had the means; he could just throw down whatever.
NUVO: Is there any more consensus today on what birdstones were for than there was when Townsend wrote about them in the 1950s?
Swann: You can ask ten people and get ten different answers. They really don't know. They're beat up, so they were obviously used; they didn't just sit on a shelf. Even if they were ceremonial, they were used, because they're salvaged, they're broken, the holes are blown out. Some people's theory is that they were tied on the atlatl, a spear-throwing device, so that the bird on the spear would carry the arrow to its mark, with the spirit-bird connection. In South America, you can still find little bird effigies tied on bow and arrows; and that same kind of premise holds, that the bird is with the arrow. A lot of times they'll use Cooper's hawk fletchings on the back of the arrow because the Cooper's hawk has such deadly aim and very seldom misses its prey. That's one of the big theories; but, there again, that's the theory. And some of these don't even look like birds; some look like frogs, some look like dogs.
NUVO: What kind of people do you anticipate being involved in the auction?
Swann: It'll run the gambit. I wouldn't be surprised if some heavy museum hitters were in there, thought they might remain in the shadows. It's be everybody: blue collar, lawyers, doctors. A lot of these people are farmers, believe it or not, and the money comes out; it's a build-it-and-they-will-come kind of a thing. Mattress money. Their wives don't even know about this money. Arrowhead collectors are a tight little niche. Of course, how many people are players at a 100 grand? Not many. But you'd be surprised what these guys with old bib overalls will do. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these kinds of museum artifacts to come into public hands.
NUVO: And you've had an opportunity to interact with all the piece in the collection?
Swann: Yes, it has my drool all over it. If you're not an arrowhead guy, I don't know how to put it into words. It's a like looking at Playboy for an arrowhead guy; it's a real sickness!